Mad Max (1979) —Can’t miss this one. This is the set up for all that follows. A young and still altruistic cop loses his wife and child to a gang of punked-out outlaws. The crime is senseless and all his focus is now on revenge. Whether or not you approve of Mel Gibson and whether or not an hour and half of relentless violence is an appealing way to spend an evening, this is a classic story and most likely an historically important film. In this first Mad Max out of the chute, we witness digital-less filmmaking at its boldest. The stunts are done by real people in real space and time. Gibson here, young and pretty, doesn’t say much and doesn’t need to. Events age him, harden him. But what’s left after revenge has been taken? The answer is in the second film. Max is all but dead.
Mad Max: Road Warrior (1981) — A tougher Mad Max has little more going for him than a basic instinct to survive. Though, in what reminded me of A Boy and His Dog, an earlier apocalyptic tale, Max now has a dog to ride with him on the barren landscape is search of gasoline. It’s a kind of “we have to keep going to get gasoline so we can keep going to get gasoline kind of thing. But it works. In fact, this is my favorite of the quartet largely because it takes outlandish villainy to a new level. Using the look of heavy metal and the symbolic manifestations of sado-masochism, the film has a unique and powerful look and feel. What really makes this one stand out for me is the addition of a couple of fascinating characters. One is a slimy, slightly crazy crackpot who has built a primitive helicopter and has taken a liking to Max. The second is a feral kid, who steals any scene he’s in. Despite the body count, the movie comes to a fine, satisfying end.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) — This one is the outlier. It has a different sensibility about it. Yes, there are the usual chase scenes, brutal fights. Certainly there is evil to be righted, the least of which is Bartertown run by a corrupt boss played Tina Turner. But the movie seems dialed down. A little comedy had crept in to Road Warrior. And it was welcomed. However, the sustained intensity of action remained. Here, I almost expected everyone to break out in song. Though certainly a competent, sometimes imaginative undertaking, unlike the others, Thunderdrome might not keep you on the edge of your seat.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) — I would have really liked to see an aging Mel Gibson in this one. In Gibson’s seeming exile, Tom Hardy took the role and pulled his weight as the suffering hero of few words. Very few words, in large part because he wore a metal grate mask for most of the action. The fact is this wasn’t Max’s movie, anyway. It belonged to Carlize Theron as Furiosa, a fierce warrior who seeks to return to the all-woman Utopia she remembers from her youth. As all the Max films do, Fury Road plays on events in the real world, the brutal and endless fight among the great powers for water and oil. And its amazing how much the desert of Australia looks like those of the Mid East with all the primitive, barely post-industrial battles that go on there. At first glance, one might think it is current news footage from battles in Iraq.
One might also think that the best drink for these movies would be a can of 10W30. It’s all about oil. In the end, these are beer movies. Maybe a little sparkling lemonade for those experiencing a desert thirst but have to drive more civilly than the various tribes of road warriors.